Amidst the blinding limelight of Beatlemania and the fame that followed, George Harrison blazed a path that was all his own. He was branded with the moniker of “the quiet Beatle,” as he was less outspoken than Paul, John, and Ringo. Adding to his mystery, he perplexed and enchanted critics and fans alike by harnessing the power of Eastern music and fusing it into the pop song structures of the West. Harrison was a believer in universal love, and he knew that one person’s actions could serve as an impetus to change the world. He was fluent in all of the musical dialects, forever an eager and curious student of foreign culture. Harrison knew that actions, and not words, were what mattered most.
Like his Beatle brethren, George was born and raised in Liverpool, England, to humble but artistic beginnings. He decided to learn to play the guitar after hearing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” as a young teenager, and he remained possessed by rock ‘n roll and the blues for the rest of his life. He met another boy who shared many of the same musical interests on a bus to school one day. That boy was Paul McCartney.
The Beatles evolved from John Lennon’s band called The Quarrymen. George’s friendship with Paul eventually led to an audition with the group, and George earned his role as lead guitarist. Shortly after the name change, The Beatles would release “Love Me Do” along with their debut album Please Please Me, causing a worldwide pandemonium of popularity and changing the face of music in the process. As a Beatle, Harrison penned songs like “Here Comes the Sun,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Something.” He found inspiration from the Hare Krishna movement and Indian music, which led to him adding sitar and other exotic Eastern instruments into the later Beatles albums. Harrison’s so-called “experimental” touch helped the Beatles cut to the core universal elements of music, daring his listeners to open their minds and embrace all that the rest of the world has to offer.
Harrison also found great success as a solo artist. He had already released two solo albums before the Beatles’ 1970 break-up, and he went on to produce hits like “My Sweet Lord” and collaborate with other legends like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. In 1988, Harrison co-founded one of the first rock ‘n roll supergroups, The Traveling Wilburys, with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty.
Harrison no doubt felt that his success was coupled with responsibility. He was a fervent supporter of civil rights and anti-war causes of the 1960s and 1970s. He helped to organize the Concert for Bangladesh with the iconic Ravi Shankar, raising more than $240,000 to support war and natural disaster victims. Harrison performed in support of dozens, if not hundreds, of other causes throughout his career. Even after Harrison’s death, the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide disaster relief to children all over the world.
Harrison’s legacy is as richly layered as the gentle and generous life he lived. His music is timeless and continues to influence today’s songwriters. He left behind many talented friends, who performed a concert in his honor one year after his death. Performers included Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Anoushka Shankar, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Monty Python, Tom Hanks, and George’s son, Dhani Harrison. Above all, Harrison challenged all musicians to create outside of mainstream constraints and to find inspiration in the foreign. Herein lies Harrison’s mark as one of the truly great artists, and, although he sometimes spoke with soft reservation, one of the great voices in the history of music.